Posts Tagged ‘Travel writer’

‘Travels with Paul Theroux’ | Nick Smith in conversation with Theroux in the August 2011 edition of Geographical magazine

September 13, 2011

Arguably the finest travel writer of his generation, Paul Theroux has spent as much of his life in the world of books as he has on the road. By Nick Smith

Paul Theroux saunters onto the stage in a dark grey chalk-stripe suit and a white straight-from-the box Nehru collar shirt. His circular tortoiseshell glasses complete the image of the metropolitan intellectual. Urbane and media-groomed, he pauses to stride across the boards, pours himself a glass of water. If he has notes he doesn’t use them, preferring to tell a string of apparently unconnected anecdotes about his favourite travel books. For an hour he weaves the threads of his immense knowledge into a richly textured fabric. The packed house is enthralled.

Paul Theroux at the Royal Geographical Society. Photo: Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Paul Theroux at the Royal Geographical Society. Photo: Nick Smith

The following afternoon Theroux and I meet for a drink in the courtyard of his swanky hotel in Buckingham Gate to discuss his new book The Tao of Travel. Looking relaxed, he admits he ‘winged it last night. I don’t do a lot of public speaking and it can be very stressful.’ It’s hard to imagine how the author of such classics as The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonia Express and Riding the Iron Rooster could find sharing his passion for travel literature with 750 well-read geographers as anything other than an easy stroll. But then again, he’s never happier than when on the road. Or to be more precise, travelling by train.

In his lecture at the Royal Geographical Society’s Ondaatje theatre, Theroux midway through his delivery, makes the observation that as a traveller, ‘if you go to an island, you can only be up to no good.’ This seems like a good place to start: after all, he lives part of the time in Hawaii and here we are in the British Isles. So what’s he up to? ‘Nothing.’ This isn’t quite true, but at the time, neither of us could have known that before his promotional tour of the UK was over, Theroux would be patching up a 15-year feud with his nemesis V.S. Naipaul. A historic handshake in Hay on Wye. ‘I’m sorry. I miss you,’ said the 70-year-old to Naipaul.

It comes as no surprise that Theroux loves decent travel writing, although he admits ‘felicitously written, well-observed books are rather rare.’ As an example of one of the best of its genre he cites Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World. ‘I mention that not just because it’s stylish, but because the voice is so consistent, so right, so measured.’ I mention that this might be in some way related to Cherry-Garrard being George Bernard Shaw’s close friend and neighbour. Theroux says: ‘Yeah. He looked closely at Cherry-Garrard’s book.’

In his wrapping up statement at the end of Theroux’s lecture, the Society’s President Michael Palin took a positive view of the state of the art, saying: ‘rumours of the death of travel writing have tonight been proved to be greatly exaggerated.’ Theroux agrees. It’s not all bad: ‘it’s just that publishers fear a certain type of book won’t sell. But that’s not a reason not to write it. And it doesn’t mean that people won’t do proper travel or write proper travel books. It just means that it’s going to get harder for them to get published.’

He goes on to argue that in this respect ‘the future of travel writing greatly resembles the past’. But the future of books doesn’t. ‘That’s the $64,000 question. No one knows what’s going to happen to books. We never foresaw the effect of the internet, or e-books or Kindle. We’re in the middle of some kind of revolution, but I’d like to think that the book with a binding and a jacket, that’s full of good writing, will endure. And I think it will, only maybe there will be fewer.’

The problem with making predictions, says Theroux, is that everything looks superficially identical to how it used to. ‘Sitting here in London today it still looks pretty much the same as when I first came here in 1965. When people write science fiction the first thing they do is change the look of a place, but actually places look the same. It’s on the inside that real differences happen.’

This can be especially true of returning to a place after a long absence, and I ask Theroux what happens on a writer’s return. Is it the writer or the place that has changed over time? ‘The truth is I’ve changed and I’m a different person when I go back. It’s a wonderful and educational experience to go back to a place, because you see what the future will look like elsewhere. In general the quality of life is vastly different and yet not as good.’

Ideal travel books have the gifts of description and a human element, says Theroux. For sense of place Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, ‘is wonderfully written, dramatic.’ But that’s not a travel book. ‘He’s not travelling, but he’s in a foreign place. It’s an experience of solitude and confinement. Not a lot of people think of that as a travel book, you’re right. But I think it’s terrific.’

This is important for Theroux, and the demarcation lines between genres are endlessly fascinating for him. As with two other great travel writers of his generation – Colin Thubron and Jonathan Raban – he’s also a novelist. And these two existences, for Theroux at least, are not entirely separate or separable. He says that writing novels is – just like Levi’s book – all about confinement, stuck in a house, stuck behind a desk. At the end of typically eighteen months ‘you really want to get out and do something.’ While travelling to South America for The Old Patagonia Express, Theroux passed through Costa Rica and came back with the idea for his novel The Mosquito Coast. Recently, while in India for Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, he developed the idea for The Elephanta Suite, three novella which ‘I think are great. I loved writing them.’

It is this combined affection for travel and literature that led him to crystalise his vast reading in The Tao of Travel. There are plenty of literary anthologies in print, many with generous travel sections, but Tao is much more than simply a commonplace book of interesting snippets. For Theroux it deconstructs his reaction to people ‘who don’t travel alone. A lot of people who write believe that they have to come up with a certain type of book. They conceal the fact that they didn’t spend as long a time in a place as they should have. They conceal the fact that they were doing other things or were with another person.’

Theroux says there’s a virtue in travelling alone, but it’s difficult; there’s a virtue in travelling for a long period of time, but that’s difficult, too. ‘It’s much easier,’ he says, ‘to travel for a month than a year. And people conceal this. They conceal the fact that they have to pay bills, they’ve got a family and there’s someone on the other end of the phone saying come home. I don’t know where it will end.’

It’s this artifice of concealment that rankles with Theroux, who confesses not to understand why authors write books that ‘appear to be one thing when they’re really another. In Tristes Tropiques Claude Lévi-Strauss makes out he’s travelling alone, but he’s not. He’s travelling with a whole expedition. And his wife.’

Theroux is equally critical of his former enemy V.S.Naipaul, whose A Turn in the South is an exercise in this type of concealment: ‘his mistress is driving the car and yet she’s never mentioned in the book. He paid her $40,000 to drive, find restaurants and fix tickets, while his wife is back in London. As a reader you don’t know that. And that’s kinda interesting, but it’s not what the book is about.’

Despite a literary career in which he’s often blended fiction with reality –sometimes with legal and emotional consequences – when it comes to travel writing, ‘the truth is always more interesting than what’s made up. This is my objection to some travel writing and this is what informs my selections in Tao.’ Theroux says he wanted to expose other writers’ concealments, and so one of the tasks he set himself was to compile a league table of how long famous travellers claim to have spent on the road and then to hold their claims up against reality. One of Theroux’s ambitions was to dissect and atomise travel books in ‘my own eccentric way of evaluating the truth.’

As the conversation threatens to become a metaphysical disquisition of the nature of truth, Theroux suggests that too many travel writers get hi-jacked by an unknown reader that increasingly requires the writer to have travelled alone, suffered, had moments of great incident and enlightenment. He goes on to say that publishers get bothered too when these boxes don’t get ticked. As a consequence, the writer is often tempted to take the path of least resistance and fabricate an experience that conforms to these expectations. I ask him if there’s an absolute relationship between the travel writer and the literal truth? Theroux adjusts his Ray-Bans, considers the question, before restating the challenge that has tripped up virtually every travel writer since the dawn of the genre. ‘You have a great duty to tell the truth, without being boring.’

At this point the sky turns black with helicopters and our voices are drowned out. ‘That’s Obama,’ shouts Theroux reminding me that we’re a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. ‘I think he’s staying with the Queen tonight. Great president. Nice guy. I just hate his political decisions on things like Iraq and Afghanistan.’

Soundbites: Travelling with Paul Theroux’s books

Tearsheet of Nick Smith's interview with Paul Theroux in Geographical magazine

How the interview appeared in Geographical magazine, September 2011

The difference between travel writing and fiction is the difference between recording what the eye sees and discovering what the imagination knows – The Great Railway Bazaar

A train isn’t a vehicle. A train is part of the country. It’s a place – Riding the Iron Rooster

The best of travel seems to exist outside of time, as though the years of travel are not deducted from your life – Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

A landscape looks different when you know the names of things, and conversely, can look exceedingly inhospitable and alien when it seems nameless – Fresh Air Fiend

In countries where all the crooked politicians wear pin-striped suits, the best people are bare-assed – Dark Star Safari

Villages endure destitution better than towns, and rural poverty can perversely seem almost picturesque – The Pillars of Hercules

The nearest thing to writing a novel is travelling in a strange landscape – Sunrise with Seamonsters

When something human is recorded, good travel writing happens – To the Ends of the Earth

Travel, which is nearly always seen as an attempt to escape from the ego, is in my opinion the opposite. Nothing induces concentration or inspires memory like an alien landscape or a foreign culture – The Happy Isles of Oceania

Nothing is more bewildering to a foreigner than a nation’s pleasures – The Kingdom by the Sea

Quotations taken from The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux, Hamish Hamilton £16.99

‘Travels in the World of Books’ by Nick Smith – publication date announced, 11th May, 2010

April 8, 2010

‘Travels in the World of Books’ by Nick Smith, publication date 11th May 2010

‘I find it difficult to recall anything I’ve read over the past few years that is as amusing and interesting as this lovely book. A triumph.’ Alexander McCall Smith

For the past three years Nick Smith has written a column for Bookdealer magazine that – despite his remit to cover the inner workings of the book trade – often drifted from the beaten track as he recorded his own travels as a photojournalist on far flung assignments. The result was the immensely popular monthly ‘Travels in the World of Books’, collected here in their entirety.

Bored with wasting time in airports, planes and hotels, he decided to catch up on his reading, only to find that travel and literature go together like gin and tonic. The more geographically wide-ranging his travel became, the more he rediscovered the works of great travel writers, classic novelists and immortal poets.

Part travelogue, part literary criticism and sometimes simply gossip, Nick Smith’s Travels in the World of Books offers an insight into some of the remotest regions of the world through the eyes of the writers who went there before him.

‘I cannot imagine a better companion than Nick Smith for a wander through the world of books. Amusing, interesting, and always perceptive, he takes us into the parts of the publishing industry that the public rarely reaches. Quite wonderful.’ Alexander McCall Smith

‘Nick Smith writes with fluency and insight, equally happy musing on ancient world history as tackling swashbuckling epics of adventure and exploration. Entertaining, thoughtful and unmissable’ Justin Marozzi, author of Travels with Herodotus

‘A fascinating voyage into the world of books. Nick Smith, like an experienced captain, steers the boat of his narrative – past the hidden rocks of publishing and sales – to the coveted Eldorado of high literature. An insightful, educational and highly entertaining journey.’ Vitali Vitaliev, author of Life as a Literary Device

Travels in the World of Books, by Nick Smith

Published by Rare Books and Berry, 264pp inc 8pp colour photos, Hardback, Price: £14-99, ISBN: 978-0-9563867-0-0

Available from all good bookshops or direct  from the publisher (£14.99 plus £1-63 post in UK)

or from Amazon Click here

Nick Smith interview with Colin Thubron from 2008 (as published in Geographical magazine – heritage stuff)

May 15, 2009

Writer on the road

One of the true elder statesmen of travel writing, Colin Thubron muses on his new book, the dangers of vodka and why you’re never alone when you’re on the road.  Words and portrait by Nick Smith

Colin Thubron disappears into his kitchen to make coffee. He’s concerned that his telephone doesn’t seem to work properly since he tried to install broadband, and he is irritated on my behalf that crossing London on the Underground network has taken an unfairly long time and has made me late for my appointment with him. We’re in his smart west London apartment in a leafy avenue near Queen’s Gate, and while the silver-haired Thubron waits for the kettle to boil we make small talk about how difficult it is to hook up to the Internet. As he clatters around with mugs and spoons I surreptitiously scan his bookcases.

His book collection tells its own narrative of a man as fascinated with the progress of 20th century English literature as with travel. The novels of William Golding share shelf-space with the travel classics of Patrick Leigh Fermor, while the poems of T S Eliot are up there with histories of the Mughal princes.  This duality of the literary and the geographical is an important thread that runs through Thubron’s life. While it is true that he is one of our best loved and most accomplished travel writers he is also a novelist of some stature. He may well have won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1988 for his epic Behind the Wall: A Journey through China, but as recently as 2002 he was short-listed for the far more prestigious Booker prize for his fictional work To the Last City. His opinion obviously matters: there are new books scattered around clearly sent to him by publishers in the hope that he might favourably review them. And there are others by friends who are authors sent in the hope that he might simply read them (‘I wish I had time to read books by my friends’.)  Although he doesn’t mention it, his roots in literature are deeper still, being an indirect descendant of one of the real heavyweights of the English canon, the 17th century Augustan poet John Dryden. Watching over this literary melting pot in the corner there is an imperious stuffed eagle-owl he dragged back from Spain some years ago, in the days when you could ‘do that sort of thing without raising too many eyebrows.’

Thubron is of course currently in the spotlight on account of his much-anticipated new book, Shadow of the Silk Road. To say it has done well is an understatement with it being easily the best-selling travel book over the Christmas 2006 period, while its author has given an unprecedented three lectures on the subject at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). Scenes created by disappointed punters turned away from the Ondaatje lecture theatre amounted to little less than dignified rioting. However, this is not to say that Shadow of the Silk Road has met with unmixed critical acclaim. His staunchest supporters admit he can be difficult to read and ‘old-fashioned’. But what seems to have annoyed some of the newspaper critics this time around is his decision to include imaginary sequences of dialogue between himself and ancient Silk Road traders, something that the Observer finds ‘embarrassing in their melancholic self-regard.’ Strong stuff indeed, and in no way justified as a criticism of a book that is not just about the objective realities of traveling.

It is also a view that overlooks the point that Thubron is an innovator who, in order to create the emotional and imaginative depth his books require, is happy to experiment by integrating novel writing techniques into his travelogues. This approach is in fact something of a revelation at a time when there are too many undistinguished travel books being put out by mediocre publishers. Some of today’s best authors slip anchor and quietly join another genre (William Dalrymple is now a best-selling popular historian; Philip Marsden is reportedly writing a history of the Battle of Magdala; Justin Marozzi a biography of Herodotus). Lesser writers continue to publish accounts of travel stunts contrived purely for the sake of writing about them. But Thubron, the elder statesman of his art delivers original, literary observation that will still be in print long after we have forgotten the names of some of today’s writers.

Is this alleged decline in travel writing simply down to the fact that there’s nowhere left to go? ‘I do think it’s a slight illusion that there’s nowhere left to travel’ says Thubron. ‘I remember doing a journey in the 1970s in which I took an old car across Asia through Iran and Afghanistan through to Kashmir, North Pakistan and Lebanon. All these places have become difficult, if not impossible, to travel in today. At that time China and the Soviet Union were off the map altogether and I thought I’d never get to explore them. And then suddenly the exact opposite happened – these two massive areas for exploration fall open, while the central Islamic countries are becoming harder to travel in. Things change all the time.’

For the past century, ever since Sir Mark Aurel Stein brought the region to the attention of the wider public, the Silk Road has been a rich hunting ground for explorers and writers. Since the Millennium there has been a major exhibition at the British Library, a television series on the subject by geographer Nick Middleton, as well as the much publicised all-women horseback ride along the length of the route by Alexandra Tolstoy and her three companions. So isn’t this rather over-exposed territory for Thubron? ‘What fascinated me was the countries themselves, the idea of inner Asia, central Asia, Northwest China, the Islamic countries… the sort of in-between countries, those porous borders, the cultural transfusion that resulted from the endless movement of people in antiquity. All that interested me a lot and came before any idea of traveling the Silk Road itself. Then later as a result of my research I realized that the one binding element between all these countries was the Silk Road and so I came to it in a secondary way. I realized by the end of the book that almost all political borders are fake and the real borders are elsewhere.’

The journey that makes up Shadow of the Silk Road was complete by Thubron in two legs, the first in 2003 and the second in 2004. It was impossible for him to get from China to Turkey in one hit because of the war in Afghanistan, a place where according to Thubron ‘it’s not a good idea to take a car.’ Despite the fact that he researched his subject for a year-and-a-half before setting out, the journey was planned in ‘rather a scattershot way’ with a broad idea of which counties he was to travel through, but only ‘the vaguest notion of where I was to go in them.’ He says that this is the only way to do it, having learned that if you try to arrange meetings, book hotels, stick to timetables then the only things you can guarantee are endless hassle, problems and disappointments. ‘You have to get out of that mood you have in England where you expect everything to work for you’ he says glancing mournfully at his telephone. ‘Why should everything work for you? If the buses don’t run, you miss the train, the camel goes lame or the car breaks down then you kind of have to accept that as part of the personality of the country you are in. Whether what happens is bad or good, it doesn’t really matter provided there’s a book at the end of it.’

The idea of there being ‘a book at the end of it’ is something that is always in Thubron’s mind and a driving force behind some of his scarier adventures. To be traveling alone, he says, means that there are always two of you on the journey. In this apparent paradox there’s the one who is physically doing the traveling and the other sitting on your shoulder with a notebook and pencil. And it is the latter who thinks, just as you are being mugged ‘hmmm, this is good copy… I think I’ll we’ll use this.’ It’s a tension between self-preservation and daring that not even the best of writers can resolve. After all, if you are traveling sensibly, at least in theory, then nothing much bad will happen to you. You end up looking for experiences or even worse manufacturing them, whether consciously or not. ‘I’m very ashamed of this,’ says Thubron, ‘but I am aware all the time I am on a journey that it is for a book. All the time there’s this dual business going on. You are going for experience and you push yourself to do things you’d never normally undertake. Maybe something dangerous. But that’s not courage.’

Rather than courage he sees it as application to his trade. While traveling as a professional writer he claims to imagine himself invulnerable in a way that he would not were he on holiday with his girlfriend, for example. Out on assignment he is looking for experiences in a way that others do not, experiences others would try to avoid. He cites as an example the moment he nearly died on the Silk Road journey. It had nothing to do with terrorism, insurgency, Islamic fundamentalism, gun-toting tribal warlords or even natural disaster. It was simply his inability to judge a mundane situation where both he and his Kyrgyz companions had been drinking vodka before getting in a car and driving away. ‘I hadn’t realized how drunk they were. Like most of the Central Asian peasants they were subverted by vodka. The whole car seemed to pass out at the same time, including the driver.’ The car veered slowly towards what Thubron says must have been the ‘only lorry driving in central Kyrgyzstan that night, and I don’t know how we missed it.’ 


Colin Thubron is slightly different from most travel writers today – he comes from a generation when his chosen genre was at its apex. The competition were far fewer in number , though his contemporaries – Bruce Chatwin, Eric Newby, Jonathan Raban, Paul Theroux – were a fearsomely talented and diverse bunch. But what he has in common with all of them is that he is a writer first and a traveler second. He elaborates by making the point that ‘years ago someone made the distinction between travelers who write and writers who travel.’ He his happy to place himself in the latter category and equally happy to admit to being the ‘someone’ who made the distinction in the first place. ‘Since I was a child I wanted to be a writer. I write novels and I wrote bad poetry as a teenager…’ The telephone rings and we look at each other significantly before agreeing that it must be working again. The interview has come to a close, but there is one last question. I ask him how when the day comes, he would like to be remembered. As a writer? He looks thoughtful before saying: ‘I suppose so, yes. Though it’s difficult to know what a writer is.’